Business leaders who hold traditional beliefs about the role of business in society continue to use the economic crisis to espouse their conviction that the primary responsibility is to do well, not good. In their recent BusinessWeek column, Jack and Suzy Welch argue just this. It’s not as one-sided of an argument as we often see, but the point is clear: profit begets purpose, not the other way around. If a rash of new M.B.A. programs is any barometer, however, fresh thinking is on its way in.
Case in point—a story this week about Harvard Business School’s creation of “The M.B.A. Oath.” This promise “to serve the greater good” was organized by students and 20 percent of the program’s 2009 graduating class has opted to take it. Student advocates of the oath hope to establish a formal code that all future graduates will be required to uphold, similar to the Hippocratic Oath for physicians or the pledge taken by lawyers to uphold the law and Constitution.
M.B.A. professors, too, are recognizing the shift in attitudes among today’s students, and schools have ramped up courses and created new centers focused on ethics and corporate responsibility to satisfy the increased demand. Business school professors agree “they are seeing a generational shift away from viewing an M.B.A. as simply an on-ramp to the road to riches” and are viewing “business as more than a money-making enterprise, but part of a large social community.” This trend shows that future leaders may well care about more than just profits, and feel a stronger sense of responsibility for the good of society.
It’s not just corporate responsibility seeing this shift in thinking. Enrollment in climate-focused M.B.A. programs is surging, graduates are opting for careers in community organizing and public service agencies such as Teach For America and the Peace Corps are experiencing a swell in applications. In fact, research shows that M.B.A. students are willing to sacrifice an average of 14.4 percent of their expected compensation to work for a responsible company.
There is little doubt that corporate America’s attitudes will shift even further when these graduates become leaders. Dare we predict consumer perceptions of corporate America will follow?